Antonio Pisano, known as
Pisanello, was born in Pisa sometime before 1395, son of Puccio di
Giovanni da Cerreto and Elisabetta. His name first appeared in the will
that his father registered in Pisa on 22 November 1395 naming him sole
heir. A document dated 1404 stating that the Pisan, Bartolomeo, second
husband of Elisabetta, was in Verona, leads to the belief that the
family had been living in the Veneto city for some years. In 1415 he
received the commission to continue with the decorations of the Room of
the Great Council in the Ducal Palace in Venice, a task that he would
work on until 1420. He may have completed the frescoes –that have since
been lost - in the castle of Pavia by 1424 (some scholars have dated
them around 1440). In 1426 he completed the sculptured decorations for
the tomb of Niccolò Brenzoni (who died in 1422) in the church of San
Fermo Maggiore in Verona, and the completion of frescoes signed by
Pisanello is more or less dated around the same time. Between 1431 and
1432 he was in Rome where he completed the decorations in the church of
San Giovanni in Laterano that Gentile da Fabriano had not yet finished
when he died in 1427. Pisanello left Rome after 26 July 1425 with a
safe-conduct pass from Pope Eugenius IV. He stayed in Mantua where he
may have started the courtly fresco cycle for the Gonzaga family: he
had reached a considerable stage of completion on the synopias in time
for the emperor Sigismund’s visit in September 1433. He next went to
Ferrara before he returned to Verona where he stayed until 1438. The
frescoes in the Pellegrini chapel in the church of Sant’Anastasia date
from this sojourn in Verona. That same year he went to Ferrara, for the
council and then to Mantua where he stayed at least until the autumn of
1439 when, as part of Gianfrancesco Gonzaga’s retinue he participated
in the sack of Verona. He was indicted by the Rectors of Verona and
brought before the Council of Ten of the Venetian Republic. After a
stay in Milan (1440) and Ferrara where he painted the Portrait of Leonello d’Este,
in competition with Jacopo Bellini, he again returned to Mantua (August
1441) where he was pardoned in 1442 and permitted to return home under
the condition that he appear in Venice by March. He did not comply and
in October of that same year he was declared a rebel. The Council of
Ten allowed him to go to Ferrara, to the Este court but absolutely
forbade him from going to either Verona or Mantua. On 15 February 1443
he left Venice for Ferrara. He made the medal dated 1444 for the duke,
Leonello. His work as a medal maker continued over the following years
with the portraits of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, lord of Rimini
(1445), Cecilia Gonzaga and Ludovico II Gonzaga (1447). At the end of
1448 Pisanello departed for Naples and the court of Alfonso of Aragon
The exact date of his death is not known, but it must have occurred
some time around 1445, as deduced from a letter dated 31 October 1455
from Carlo de’Medici to his brother Giovanni stating that he had
purchased a certain number of medals from a helper of the painter who
had just died.
In addition to portraying animals and plants in the wake of the great Lombard masters, Pisanello also did several drawings of nudes, using ancient statues or live models. This drawing has been related to some studies of female nudes in Rotterdam (Museum Boymans-van Beuningen) that are close to Pisanello’s work in San Fermo (Verona). Specifically, the Vienna sheet that is most probably an Allegory of Lust (due to the rabbit, a symbol of fertility, and traditionally attributed to the personification of vice) has been justly related to the Rotterdam drawing known as The Bathers. Because of its refined elegance and rendering of the details the Vienna drawing is considered one of Pisanello’s outstanding graphic works: the artist interpreted the naturalness of the female figure with a language that was strongly rooted in courtly stylistic elements.
Madonna with a Quall
This is the first known painting by Pisanello and it clearly reveals links with the works of Michelino da Besozzo, Gentile da Fabriano and the masters of the “International Gothic” styles. The greatest similarities relate to the Virgin and Childwith Angels in a Rose Garden in the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona that has been attributed to Michelino or Stefano da Verona. Pisanello’s Madonna with a Quail is set in a lush rose garden, a traditional attribute of the Virgin Mary. The two finches refer to the Crucifixion when, according to tradition, they became stained with red while the quail is a symbol of the resurrection.
An outstanding draftsman, Pisanello often drew animals, following the example of the Lombard masters. Giovannino de Grassi and Michelino de Besozzo had already revealed a predilection for drawing from nature – specifically animals – that Pisanello must have studied during his Pavian sojourn. He went to the Lombard city to decorate the Visconti castle; this work is mentioned in the sources, but not a trace remains other than the artist’s subsequent works. The Stork, which some scholars have related to the Saint Eustace in the National Gallery, London reveals technical similarities with the preparatory drawings for the frescoes he painted in the church of Sant’Anastasia in Verona.
Study for the Beheading of John the Baptist
Pisanello is documented as having been in Rome in 1431 where he was commissioned to complete the decorations in San Giovanni in Laterano, that had been left unfinished by Gentile da Fabriano who died in 1427. This, the first great project ordered by Martin V upon his return to Rome, was lost in the XVII century when Borromini remodeled the church for the Jubilee of 1650 during the pontificate of Innocent X. In fact, the sole drawing of the cycle (Berlin, Kunstbibliothek) has been attributed to the architect. The frescoes were to have been on three registers, with the lowest dedicated to scenes from the life of Saint John the Baptist. Two of the scenes painted by Gentile are known from two of Pisanello’s drawings, the Capture of the Baptist (London, British Museum) and the Baptism of Christ (Paris, Louvre), while the sheet with the Beheading of the Baptist was probably a preparatory drawing for one of the scenes that had been entirely conceived and painted by the artist from Verona.Iconography
Virgin and Child with St. George and St. Anthony Abbott
This panel, the only of the few surviving ones by Pisanello that he actually signed, portrays the Virgin in the upper part within a shield of light. In the lower section, against a background of an impenetrable forest are saints Anthony Abbott and George, with the animals traditionally linked to their cults: the pig and the dragon. The features of St. George, who is perfectly attired in the courtly fashions of the era, and wearing a large straw hat, have been identified with a portrait of the young Leonello d’Este. According to some scholars this is the painting mentioned in a 1432 letter written by Leonello. Not all, however, agree as to the dating that many believe to be the fifth decade of the century and therefore the last known painting by Pisanello.
St. George, and the Princess of Trebizond
This fresco is all that remains of a much larger decoration Pisanello painted in the arch leading to the Pellegrini chapel in the Dominican church of Sant’Anastasia in Verona. The lost scenes depicted St. Eustace and St. George slaying the dragon, while the surviving fresco shows the moment in which St. George reaches the outskirts of the Libyan city of Silena and meets the king’s daughter who is about to be sacrificed to the terrible dragon that had been terrorizing the people. The story is told in Jacopo da Varagine’s Golden Legend and Pisanello rendered it with abundance of detail which, according to the late Gothic tradition, transforms St. George into a knight and fills the composition with sophisticated decorative details. There are several preparatory drawings extant of this frescoes, including a sheet for the hanged figures that was probably drawn from life.Iconography
Portrait of Ginevra d’Este
This portrait was done during the early years of Pisanello’s relationship with Ferrara. It is a profile of a young lady who has been identified as Leonello d’Este’s sister, Ginevra. On the sleeve of her dress is the Estense crest with the vase with the anchors, while the sprig of juniper is a clear reference to her name. The columbine hedge and carnations in the background, symbols of fertility, love and marriage, respectively and the butterfly that can take on the same symbolic value, have led to the hypothesis that it is a wedding portrait painted shortly before Ginevra’ marriage to Sigismondo Malatesta in 1434. However, the columbine can also be interpreted as a symbol of grief and death and thus has led to another hypothesis: that it was painted after Ginevra’s tragic death. However, the identification of the subject as Ginevra is not universally accepted. Some scholars maintain that the lady is Magherita Gonzaga, daughter of Gianfrancesco and wife of Leonello d’Este from 1435 to 1439.
The Vision of Saint Eustace
The subject of this painting, the miraculous vision of the crucifix that appeared between the horns of a stag to one of Trajan’s officers during a hunting party in the woods offered Pisanello the opportunity to use all his extraordinary abilities as a painter of the natural world. In fact, among all his works, this London panel is the one for which the most preparatory drawings still survive and most are of animals. Even in this case, as for the St. George of Verona, Eustace is perfectly dressed according to the period’s dictates for hunting attire.Iconography
All that we have today of Pisanello’s work in Mantua, where there are records of his sojourn starting from 1422, is the large courtly decoration in the entrance hall of the Gonzaga palazzo. Based on the chivalrous tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the surviving fresco portrays the tournament held at the castle of Louverzep prior to the knights’ departure for the quest of the Holy Grail. In addition to the fresco there are still extant large sections of red synopia that the artist probably drew on all the walls before he actually began painting. The wealth of motion and details dates this work sometime after Pisanello’s sojourn in Rome.Iconography
Portrait of Leonello d’Este
This small head and shoulders portrait shows Leonello facing right, with a rose garden in the background. His hair, swept back from the forehead and up from the neck, and the sumptuous red robe with a brocade over-tunic are rendered with great attention to even the tiniest details and ornaments, such as the large pearls along the edge. There has never been any doubt as to the identity of the subject due to the obvious resemblance with the portrait-medal that Pisanello cast. In addition, a sonnet by Ulisse degli Aleotti recalls a legendary painting competition between Pisanello and Jacopo Bellini in 1441 to paint the prince’s portrait. Even though according to Leonello’s father, Niccolò d’Este, Bellini painted the more lifelike portrait, it was Pisanello who won the competition because he succeeded in rendering the prince’s “gauntness” and “purity” that were considered signs of rectitude and moral strength.
Medal of Leonello d’Este
The medal follows the typology of the portrait that Pisanello had painted of Leonello three years before (Accademia Carrara, Bergamo) and shows the prince in profile with his thick head of hair. It was during his sojourn in Ferrara that Pisanello began making commemorative, or celebratory medals, based on Imperial Roman models. On the obverse is a profile of Leonello facing right, with the inscription “LEONELLUS MARCHIO ESTENSIS”, with juniper branches spacing the words. On the reverse is a three headed face of a child, and on either side, suspended from juniper branches the genouillière, or knee-pieces of an armor suit. The medal has been dated between 1441, the year Leonello became the marquis and 1443 the year in which Giovanni Badile was commissioned to paint the frescoes in Santa Maria della Scala in Verona where it is believed this medal was reproduced. Actually, that is the medal of Leonello with two canephores on the obverse which was struck during the same period as the one shown here. The three headed face has been interpreted in several ways, but most scholars agree that it is the image of Prudence that Leonello adopted as his emblem in 1435.
Medal of Alfonso V of Aragon
Pisanello made this medal in 1448 when he was staying at the Aragonese court of Naples. The medal portrays Alfonso V of Aragon, King of Naples and Sicily; a preparatory drawing for the medal, dated the same year, is conserved in the Louvre. The subject is portrayed above the crown, in profile, wearing a fur trimmed garment. On the reverse, against a rocky background we see a young, semi-nude hunter attacking a wild boar whose ears are being bitten by two dogs. One of the dogs is readily visible in the foreground, while we only see the tail of the other from behind the boar. The inscription “VENATOR/INTREPIDUS” alludes, to Alfonso’s fondness for hunting as well as his courageous spirit.